'The Descendants': What the Critics Are Saying

The Descendants - Movie Still of George Clooney, Robert Forster, Shailene Woodley and Barbara L. Southern - H - 2011
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Majority of reviews Alexander Payne's dark comedy masterful in its writing, acting, and ability to draw in its audience.

Director Alexander Payne’s first film since 2004's Sideways, The Descendants, opened strong in five theatres in New York and Los Angeles on Wednesday. On Friday, it will open in 29 more theatres in 11 more markets before going wide on Nov. 23.

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The film, co-written by NBC’s Community star, Jim Rash, stars George Clooney as Matt King, who comes from a wealthy family in Hawaii and who’s dealing with the loss of his comatose wife (Patricia Hastie) after a boating accident and must find a way to reconnect with their two daughters (played by Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller).

The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy commends the film’s storytelling after seeing it screened at the Telluride Film Festival in Sept. and says, “George Clooney is in very top form in a film that will connect with any audience looking for a genuine human story.”

He goes on to write, “A major key to the film’s success are the nuances, fluctuating attitudes, loaded looks and tonal inflections among the main characters; the ensemble work is terrific.”

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Chicago Sun-Times critic, Roger Ebert, shares in McCarthy’s enthusiasm writing, “Payne is gifted at using the essence of an actor. He links something in their nature to their characters.”

“What happens is that we get vested in the lives of these characters,” he also writes. “That's rare in a lot of movies. We come to understand how they think and care about what they decide. There are substantial moral problems underlying the plot.”

The critical admiration for Payne’s work continues in Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman’s review of the film.

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“Payne's long-awaited new film, is another beautifully chiseled piece of filmmaking — sharp, funny, generous, and moving — that writes its own rules as much as About Schmidt or Sideways did,” Gleiberman writes.

“In a funny way, Payne has become the Stanley Kubrick of serious American comedy: He takes forever to make a movie, searching every time (as Kubrick did) for the perfect book to adapt. But when he finally discovers it and gets rolling (in this case, it's a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings), he turns each film into a masterfully realized and inhabited universe.”

To find a negative response to the film, which is being touted by many critics as an Oscar contender, is a tough task, but the Village Voice’s film reviewer J. Hoberman appears unimpressed by the writing for Clooney’s character and despite Payne’s talents, he says that Clooney’s Matt left him “cold.”

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“Despite the large, and talented, cast that Payne has assembled, The Descendants revolves entirely around its supremely amiable star,” Hoberman says. “But, even with the crutch provided by an insistent voiceover, Clooney’s part is underwritten. Moreover, the actor’s own blessings are so evident that it’s hard to accept him as the beleaguered (if fabulously wealthy) everyman that the movie demands he be.”

“Still, save for a reflexive response to the spectacle of ‘girlfriend in a coma’ (ironically, the best scenes are the solos Clooney directs at comatose Hastie—moments that make clear what is otherwise implicit), it left me cold,” he goes on to write. “The pathos is as unearned as the protagonist’s privilege.”

Email: Jethro.Nededog@thr.com; Twitter: @TheRealJethro